Making 3-D printing accessible

August 19, 2016

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Nancy Liang of Mixee Labs forecasts which products will spur 3-D printing adoption.

Nancy Liang of Mixee Labs forecasts which products will spur 3-D printing adoption.

 

PwC: Nancy, can you please tell us what inspired you to start Mixee Labs?

Nancy Liang: Sure. Before I started Mixee Labs, I was working at Shapeways, a 3-D printing service bureau. One of the things I realized is that a lot of people are interested in 3-D printing, but most don’t have a particular idea that they want to print or they don’t know how to model their idea. We saw a big gap on the content generation side of things. How can we let people make their own customized items?

At Mixee Labs, we are creating a platform that makes it easy for people to customize their own products and for designers to publish their designs-but in a way so other people can tweak certain parameters and styles to customize it to their taste-all without knowing how to use CAD [computeraided design] software or what that is.

PwC: What functionality does your software provide?

Nancy Liang: Much of what we do is work with designers to verify that their idea is a good product that can be 3-D printed economically, so it’s not too expensive for consumers to purchase.

For example, we take into consideration manufacturing costs. With 3-D printing, you pay by the amount of material used, not by the complexity of the product you print. Printer time and material usage relates to build volume, so the pricing structure is called volumetric pricing. This pricing can be strange. If you double the height of an object from 2 inches to 4 inches, for instance, you will increase the amount of material by eight times and hence the cost by eight times.

A lot of people don’t take that into consideration. Or they don’t understand that if you don’t hollow something out, for example, then you’re using a lot of material that can lead to the print being very expensive.

We work to educate the designers: How to design for 3-D printing, how to enable customization, how to price appropriately, the pros and cons of different material options, and how to use the available choices of materials.

“The challenge for us was how to give them [users] a good starting point and still allow enough freedom for them to make the design their own.”

PwC: What technologies are you using to build your platform?

Nancy Liang: We are using some of the common web framework, including Ruby on Rails and JavaScript. A lot of our 3-D rendering is done using WebGL [Web Graphics Library], which is a 3-D framework for the browser. We are really taking advantage of the growing popularity of WebGL. With WebGL, you don’t need to wait for the server to respond. The user interaction is completely on the client side, so the display and interaction with 3-D designs is fluid and responsive.

We feel our bet on WebGL is paying off. When we started, Internet Explorer didn’t support WebGL; now IE version 11 supports it. There is a promising future of 3-D software in web browsers.

PwC: What does WebGL make possible that was not there before?

Nancy Liang: WebGL is sort of a JavaScript API [application programming interface] for rendering graphics in a web browser. Before, if someone wanted to render 3-D graphics, a Java or Flash plug-in was needed. That’s a barrier to usability, and it takes up a lot of processing power.

Another paradigm for 3-D was to set a few parameters and send any interaction to the server. The server would process and generate a new file and send it back to the browser, which would render it. Those steps are really slow and not ideal.

WebGL comes packaged with a browser. It allows the browser to access the graphics processor on the display device directly. This approach speeds things up. That’s why we can support interaction with and the display of 3-D animations in real time.

PwC: What are you learning?

Nancy Liang: In our research, we talked with potential users ranging from designers to casual users interested in this technology but who don’t have a design background. We found that many people don’t have a specific idea of what they want to make. So even if the CAD program was very simple, they are not sure where to start or what the goal is.

Not everyone can start from scratch. Giving them templates for product categories, such as figurines, is much better for their purposes than having them create the model on a blank canvas.

The challenge for us was how to give them a good starting point and still allow enough freedom for them to make the design their own. So we have parameterized the design. They can manipulate the parameters to change the design. And designers must decide which aspects of a design they parameterize and which they do not.

Through much iteration, we learned to optimize our designs for 3-D printing. We believe having templates that are pre-optimized for 3-D printing removes some hassle and cost from the experience. The experience is also transparent. A person knows the cost up front, knows what the item looks like, and has assurance that the item will be printed.

“Ultimately it is about the product and not about the manufacturing process.”

PwC: Who are your customers?

Nancy Liang: Our main commercial audience consists of consumers shopping for customized designs that they can 3-D print and designers who create the designs and are interested in accessing a market.

PwC: What are some of the challenges you are seeing?

Nancy Liang: One key challenge today is cost. For example, 3-D printing a coffee mug at a service bureau could be about $40 to $50. Then you must add on charges for the designer. It can get quite expensive, which I think a lot of designers or consumers do not understand. To get more consumers to use this technology, we must keep the prices low while providing the benefits of the technology.

We are sensitive to cost in our designs. The figurines on our website, for example, are modeled in a manner so they are also less expensive to produce, which is why we can have the $25 price point. On the other hand, if you sit down with a modeler who does not understand 3-D printing, then a figurine like this could be much more expensive and potentially not even printable.

PwC: What have you learned about products that have greater adoption with 3-D printing than others? Is there an equivalent of a killer app or a killer product for 3-D printing?

Nancy Liang: We think about it as a framework: What can be solved by 3-D printing that cannot be solved by any traditional means? But a lot of people don’t think about it that way. Many designers fall in the trap of thinking only from a technology perspective: What can I make with a 3-D printer? But just because you can make it with a 3-D printer doesn’t mean it’s better or something that consumers want.

Customers don’t care whether their figurine is 3-D printed or mass manufactured. It is just a detail-a really cool detail, but just a detail. Ultimately it is about the product and not about the manufacturing process.

We created figurines as a category because figurines are something that can’t be produced using mass manufacturing methods. Also, it’s a use case that most people can relate to. Everybody has friends and families and coworkers they can make these little figurines for.

I think one very promising area is the use of 3-D printing to serve the small independent designers. There is a huge movement in DIY [do it yourself]. People want to make stuff themselves or buy from local designers. Now, 3-D printing really makes that possible. It removes the barrier to entry for designers to test their markets and bring things to market quicker.

One exciting segment is jewelry. For instance, to make a ring you probably need to have many different styles and sizes. That is very expensive if they’re mass manufactured. With 3-D printing, it’s possible to have a whole jewelry line with custom sizing because you’re making things one at a time.

PwC: So 3-D printing for personalization purposes should be designed into traditional manufacturing processes, correct? That way, everything a person owns has some custom elements, whether for vanity or other reasons.

Nancy Liang: Yes. I think there are two factors. One is the vanity as you mention, so a person feels they have something unique, something others do not have. The simplest example is monograms.

Second, if you look at the maker movement, it represents the appetite people have for making their own things. It’s not about vanity or being somewhat different, but totally new. It’s the reason people knit their own sweaters or knit for their kids, make their own beanie hats, or create scrapbooks.

You could go and buy an album from a store, but there is something more personal about making your own scrapbooks.

It is the same kind of innate desire that drives the crafting market, and it is a huge market. Now 3-D printing greatly expands what can be crafted, so there is a lot of potential there.

PwC: What about multi-material use in products? Are you using multiple materials in a single product?

Nancy Liang: Our latest product-the bobblehead- uses two different materials. It uses the kind of gypsum sandstone material for the head and the body. And it uses a nylon printed screen material for the spring, as nylon is more flexible. Right now, the parts are printed with two different printers and then assembled afterward.

More interesting is how to combine 3-D printing-not just materials within 3-D printing-with other technologies, such as combining 3-D printing with mass manufacturing. For example, you could 3-D print the earring but then add on an earring hook that comes in bulk from mass manufacturing. That is a simple example, but things like that.

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